The Republicans mostly bought national cable channels instead of breaking down those purchases by market. This had unexpected benefits, like helping Bush in Hawaii, a reliably Democratic state that Republicans had not focused on.
In October, Bush was suddenly running strong there, a result of his presence on national cable, Democrats said. That forced the Democrats to buy advertising time in Hawaii and route party notables to the state to try to counter Bush's gains.
The data also yielded unexpected insights. One of the shows most popular with Republicans, especially Republican women ages 18 to 34, turned out to be Will & Grace, the sitcom about gay life in New York. As a result, while Bush was shoring up his conservative credentials by supporting a constitutional amendment against gay marriage, his advertising team was buying time on a program that celebrates gay culture.
The Bush team broadcast commercials 473 times on Will & Grace in markets across the country between Jan. 1 and Nov. 2, according to the Wisconsin project. (The Kerry campaign broadcast commercials 859 times on the show.)
Dowd said the campaign had not tailored its message to match the demographics of the Will & Grace audience or any other audience but rather wanted to reach more viewers who might vote Republican. Besides, he said, "people are interested in broad national messages."
Goldstein said Republicans did not customize their message because they had one basic point.
"If your message is `Kerry is bad,' you don't have to tailor it," he said.
The Democratic strategy was to focus on swing states and tailor the Kerry message to the market.
In Pennsylvania, for example, the campaign ran commercials in Pittsburgh with workers talking about their jobs; in more liberal Philadelphia, it ran commercials with Michael J. Fox, the actor who has Parkinson's disease, talking about expanding embryonic stem-cell research.
But such targeting did little to resolve the question of how much difference advertising makes in a presidential campaign, particularly when there is so much of it. The real force of political advertising may be felt when it is absent.
Bradley Perseke, a Democratic strategist who bought the television time for Kerry, said that Bush's get-out-the-vote effort probably made more of a difference in the election than his advertising, although if one candidate had not advertised at all, that candidate surely would have lost.
Dowd agreed up to a point.
"What is discussed in earned media is more important than what's on the paid media," he said of news versus advertising. "But if they are in concert and the message is consistent, it has a tremendous effect."